Chilean offersto Bolivia

Offended, you throw me out of your house.  Presenting my excuses is out of the question.  I don’t admit for a moment that I offended you. On the contrary, I offer to return to your house without any preconditions. I simply forget and forgive the fact that you threw me out of your house. I keep repeating there are no issues between the two of us.  If you felt offended by me, well, that is your problem.

This has been Chile’s most frequent response to the fact that Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978.  Upping the ante, on 24 April 2013 Bolivia placed Chile on the docket before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  Following court procedure, on 15 April 2014 Bolivia presented a memorial substantiating its demand.  In it Bolivia accuses Chile of reneging on repeated formal promises to negotiate with Bolivia a sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

Soon after being hit with the Bolivian demand, Chile went public to offer Bolivia three things: 1)immediate renewal of diplomatic relations, 2) dialogue without any preconditions on any and all subjects, and 3)a request to share Chile’s view that there are no pending issues between the two countries.  Chilean diplomats capped these undertakings by stressing Chile spends a lot of money allowing Bolivia full and free access to its ports.

This is how Chile’s diplomacy turns the tables on Bolivia.  Public opinion deserves a chance to evaluate Bolivia’s reasons to act as the offended party.It all started with a dispute by two new nations over a barren desert during the first half of the 19th Century.  There is practically no drier place on earth than the Atacama Desert, which runs low along the Western coast of South America.  A few usable ports dot the forbidding plunge of the Andes Mountains through the desert into the sea.

Chile claims to this day Bolivia was born without a sea coast.  In its view Spanish colonial subdivisions entitled Chile to a sea coast that extended its northern border all the way up to Peru, leaving Bolivia landlocked.  From the start of this dispute Bolivia claimed colonial practice and Spanish crown papers proved otherwise.  By 1866 Chile and Bolivia reached an agreement.  They agreed in a treaty that their boundary along the sea coast would be the 24th parallel south.  Bolivia was left with a useful port, Antofagasta, located at one of the few protected bays in the whole region.

Chile claims it voluntarily ceded a part of its own sea coast to Bolivia by the 1866 treaty.  By contrast, Bolivia holds Chile recognized through this treaty Bolivia’s legitimates rights over  a sea coast.  As a condition for signing the 1866 treaty Chile got Bolivia to agree that Chile would share in the collection of tax revenues over the territory Chile claimed to have ceded to Bolivia.

In 1874 a fresh treaty between Chile and Bolivia recognized Bolivia’s right to be the sole collector of taxes on this territory.  In exchange for this concession, Bolivia agreed to set fixed tax rates on Chilean enterprises for 25 years.  Chilean companies backed by British investors exploited sodium nitrates and guano deposits on Bolivian and Peruvian territory.  These commodities were used to fertilize crops and manufacture explosives in Europe.  Chilean fortune hunters soon surpassed the number of Bolivians on the territory Chile agreed was Bolivian.

In 1878 Bolivia attempted to raise the taxes of the Antofagasta Nitrate Company.  The British manager refused to comply.  Bolivia threatened to confiscate the company.  Claiming this action was taken in violation of the terms of the 1874 treaty, on 14 February 1879 Chile took over the Bolivian port city of Antofagasta.  A few days later, on 5 April 1879, Chile declared war on Bolivia and Peru.  Soon thereafter the Chilean navy took control of the whole Atacama Desert, including two Peruvian provinces way beyond territory “ceded” to Bolivia.  By January 1881 Chile occupied Lima, Peru’s capital city.

Lima is almost 1500 kilometers to the north of Antofagasta and almost 2500 kilometers to the north of Chile’s capital, Santiago. Chile was not unprepared for this naval and military feat.    With great foresight Chile had ordered advanced warships from Great Britain.

As early as 1836 Chile waged a preventive war against Peru and Bolivia.  Fearing trade competition and the choking of its ports by two united neighbors, on 1839 Chile managed to destroy the Peru-Bolivia confederacy set up and run by Bolivian statesman Andres de Santa Cruz.  The War of the Pacific (1879-1883)waged by Chile against Peru and Bolivia forty years later was provoked by Chile, who rejected to settle a dispute trough arbitration.  Even so, the defeat of Peru and Bolivia in this war derived from a visionary policy formulated half a century earlier by Diego Portales, a noted Chilean statesman who held Chile had to be the master of the South Pacific coast.

The generation of Chileans who fought and won the War of the Pacific was acutely aware of the need to grant Bolivia full and unrestricted access to useful ports on the Pacific coast.  Leaving Bolivia landlocked was a time bomb.  Chile’s economy grew by leaps and bounds with the riches found in the Atacama Desert, where some of the largest copper deposits of the world are found.  Later generations of Chileans sought to placate Bolivia through a treaty giving it free access to Chilean ports, but no sovereign access to a port of its own.

During and after the War of the Pacific Chile controlled the ports through which Bolivia channeled its main export, mineral ores.  By 1904 Bolivia was forced to sign a treaty ceding to Chile its entire sea coast while Chile granted Bolivia perpetual free access to its ports and promised to build a railroad connecting the capital of Bolivia with Arica, a sea port located in territory conquered by Chile from Peru.

Over the years Bolivia denounced a number of restrictions imposed by Chile on its access to the sea, alleging violations of the 1904 treaty.  According to Chile, Bolivia enjoys to this day full and unrestricted access to the sea as stipulated by the 1904 treaty.Furthermore Chile holds that the 1904 treaty has solved all pending territorial issues between the two countries and is intangible.

Bolivia insists on obtaining from Chile sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.  Since Chile annexed two Peruvian provinces whose ports served most of Bolivian commerce, one  way Chile can comply with this request is to grant Bolivia a corridor along the border with Peru.

In 1929 Chile signed a treaty with Peru on pending territorial issues.  A secret protocol of the Treaty of Lima determined that Chile could not grant former Peruvian territory to “a third power,” which could only be Bolivia, without Peru’s formal consent. According to some commentators Chile locked up Bolivia and gave the key to Peru.

The importance of dealing with this issue was recognized by successive Chilean governments.  At certain times Chilean authorities took a hardline, closing the door on negotiations with Bolivia.  At other times they kept negotiations open, seldom advancing practical solutions that would deal with Bolivia’s complaints.  Over the years several Chilean governments went on the record with a number of promises to Bolivia to negotiate sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

The fulfillment of these promises failed to prosper for a number of reasons, including Chile’s unwillingness to comply with them.  In 1975 Chile proposed Bolivia a sovereign corridor along its border with Peru.  When consulted about this proposal in compliance with the Treaty of Lima, Peru took a year to make a thoughtful counterproposal.

Peru agreed that the sovereign corridor offered by Chile to Bolivia should end close to the Port of Arica, precisely as Chile had proposed and Bolivia had accepted, on condition that the Port of Arica become tri-national.  This would have meant that Chile would have had to surrender sovereignty over the Port of Arica.  Chile interpreted the Peruvian response as a rejection of its proposal and closed the matter.

In its demand before the ICJ Bolivia claims that through these promises Chile acquired an obligation to negotiate with Bolivia a sovereign access to the Pacific sea coast.  This demand is consistent with the contemporary doctrine of unilateral acts of states, upheld in previous decisions of the ICJ.

Chile objected the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to adjudicate this demand.  Its main argument was that the Bolivian demand hides a request for the Court to impose on Chile a unilateral revision of the 1904 Treaty.  Such a revision according to Chile would upset the foundations of international law and bring chaos to world order.  The court rejected this and other arguments of the Chilean objection and ruled that it has jurisdiction to adjudicate this matter. Chile has until 25 July 2016 to file its response to Bolivia’s demand.

As a prelude to invading the Bolivian seacoast in 1879, Chile withdrew its envoy to Bolivia.  Diplomatic relations were resumed after the war.  Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Chile in 1962 over a mountain waters dispute.  They were resumed in 1975 when Chile offered Bolivia access to the sea through a narrow corridor along its northern border with Peru.  When Chile declined to consider Peru’s counterproposal, Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978.

Since then Chile has made many offers to Bolivia to resume diplomatic relations.  It has launched a public relations campaign aimed to prove that Bolivia enjoys full access to ports on the Pacific and is willing to improve this access.  Its diplomats insist that there are no pending territorial issues between Chile and Bolivia.  They offer to sit down with Bolivia to discuss any and all issues without any preconditions.  Chile complains about having been taken to court by Bolivia.

Walter Guevara Anaya – Democratic development consultant


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